Managing growth in a client services business

Small Business Guides

5 min read

Growing a small business is a balancing act. You have to attract and impress new prospects without letting down your existing clients. Plus you need to try and add staff without destroying your cash flow. Ply Creative’s Dave Prince explains how they did it.

Getting going is easy

With a low barrier to entry, a lot of creatives try setting up their own agencies. After all, you only need a laptop and the gift of the gab to get going. Suddenly, with a couple of quick wins under your belt, you’re in business building an agency.

But getting going is the easy part. Maintaining momentum takes more effort and planning. That’s especially so for client services businesses, where you have to manage relationships. Unfortunately, it’s where many small businesses, creative agencies included, come unstuck.

Having a point of difference helps

A unique service proposition (USP) can help businesses manage their growth. It gives owners a strategic focus, which makes it easier to identify priorities.

Coming up with a USP isn’t always easy when you’re in a crowded market. There are probably competitors doing similar things to you. But you should give it a shot.

Dave Prince, a co-founder at Ply Creative, came from a digital background and he wanted to stay in that space when building an agency with business partner, Mark Campbell. 

Client service is critical

Ply Creative delivers digital and branding solutions for software providers, entrepreneurial ventures, and established companies. The niche has been profitable, and Dave believes the agency’s commitment to client service has helped fan the flames.

“Customer service is at the heart of our business. It’s our main point of difference – we spend extra time with our clients to make sure they are receiving the attention and service they deserve.”

The challenges of building an agency

Scaling up a client services business can be hard. Attracting new clients diverts your attention from looking after existing ones. As more business comes in, it gets tougher to manage workflows and deliver on all your commitments.

Dave and Mark faced this challenge in Ply Creative’s third year. Positive word-of-mouth reputation was feeding strong agency growth, but resources were being stretched thin.

“Our business had been building bit by bit every month,” Dave says, “and our workload grew by 30%.” With all the new projects coming in, he was worried about letting down the clients they already had.

It's a tough dilemma when businesses have to choose between the cost of growing and the opportunity cost of not growing.

Putting reputation at risk

Any drop in standards would've been really concerning for Ply Creative because client services was such a big part of their DNA. It drove a lot of the buzz around the agency’s reputation.

“The danger of growing is that you lose sight of the thing that you provided for your customers when you were starting out,” Dave says. “Our goal was to preserve the way we’ve always done business – to offer the same personalised service that we originally provided with the core team.”

That was getting tough to do. There was lots of work going through the studio, but not enough staff to get everything done. It was hard to keep up with agency growth and the guys needed a solution before client services suffered.

Freelancers not a long-term solution

Ply Creative had tried using freelancers to help deal with overflow work, but it wasn’t the long-term fix that Dave wanted. He preferred to do things in-house – building an agency with a good culture that delivered consistently high standards.

“We like to work with established staff, because it’s better for continuity, and it’s a much smoother process for our clients and our team. Generally, it takes a month before a new staff member gets to know the business and really starts adding value.”

Ply Creative was going to have to add permanent staff to build the agency the way they wanted. They could have dipped into their savings to finance the new hires, but Dave and Mark were wary of depleting cash flow. The last thing they wanted to do was eat into their rainy-day fund, in case an emergency came up.

The catch 22 of agency growth

It’s a dilemma faced by many creative businesses. There’s a chance for agency growth, but it comes with risks. Owners have to choose between the cost of growing and the opportunity cost of not growing.

Ply Creative was determined to capitalise on their opportunity and they had a strategy for limiting the cash flow risk to their business.

“We decided we needed a small cash injection to get staff up to speed and introduce a smoother process,” Dave says. So they looked for a quick finance option. An increasing number of lenders will provide credit based on a quick assessment of the applicant’s accounting software. The loan is approved on the strength of business financials, without any need for security.

“We just authorised the bank to check our financials through Xero. It was super easy,” Dave says. The speed of the decision helped Ply Creative move quickly and take advantage of the opportunity they had.

Ready to borrow

Maintaining accurate online accounts means you’re just about always ready to apply for finance, even at really short notice. And because lenders can assess these sorts of applications quickly, credit can be arranged far faster.

It doesn’t matter if you’re building an agency, a manufacturing plant or something else, access to finance will probably be pivotal to your growth strategy.

Stepping up to the next level

After years of building up the business, Ply Creative has found its groove, and more companies in the industry are taking notice of their work. With a few new staff members on board, new equipment, and extra office space in two locations, Dave and Mark have stepped up to the next level.

They unlocked agency growth without putting their cash flow under pressure, or pausing to go through a long assessment process. It was a matter of finding innovative lenders and providing them with quality data to make a quick decision.